HARRISBURG -- A federal appeals court stopped the execution of a Pennsylvania inmate Thursday, hours before he was scheduled to be put to death for shooting to death a teenage hitchhiker nearly two decades ago.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of Hubert Lester Michael Jr. back to a district court judge for additional proceedings.
Michael had faced a 7 p.m. execution by lethal injection for the 1993 killing of 16-year-old Trista Elizabeth Eng in York County.
He would have been the first person executed in the state since 1999, the fourth in the past quarter century and the only one in the past 50 years who had not voluntarily given up on his appeals.
A statement released by his defense lawyers welcomed the decision and said their client has compelling legal claims which have never been reviewed by any court. The Attorney General's Office declined to comment.
The circuit court panel directed the district court to address, among other things, whether Michael's appeal should be considered a successive petition subject to stricter rules, whether extraordinary circumstances existed and whether a district court proceeding is needed to consider the merits of his claims.
Since he was sentenced to death, Michael had abandoned his appeals but later resumed a legal fight, saying he had been confined under circumstances at Graterford State Prison that worsened mental health problems. Those problems got better after he was transferred to Greene State Prison, his lawyers have argued.
Pennsylvania has just over 200 people on death row, the fourth highest of any state after California, Texas and Florida.
Local defense attorney Peter Paul Olszewski Jr., who has worked on all sides of a death penalty case, said the most difficult part of a death penalty case is defending a client.
He has been a young defense attorney who got a death penalty overturned for a client, has prosecuted a death penalty case and has presided over five cases as a common pleas judge.
As a lawyer, you are fighting to save a man's life, Olszewski said. It's an actual life-and-death situation for a client you've been representing for a period of time. There's a live, breathing human and your goal is to prevent that person's death.
Olszewski said Pennsylvania has the worst possible scenario when it comes to the death penalty, noting that since the state has a death penalty, there should be finality for victims and the people who are convicted, rather than having a case drag through appeals.
If we aren't going to execute (defendants), there shouldn't be a death penalty, he said.
A conviction and sentence of death comes after a lengthy process, and is the beginning of another lengthy process, Olszewski said. The case should begin with careful consideration on if prosecutors will seek the death penalty, he said.
As a one-time prosecutor, Olszewski said a lot of money, resources and effort go into prosecuting a death penalty case and prosecutors need to weigh a number of circumstances before deciding to seek the death penalty.
As a one-time judge, Olszewski said his job was a little easier because he was a neutral party, but he took considerable time making specific rulings in death penalty cases as opposed to a regular homicide case.
Olszewski recalled standing before a jury in the death penalty case of Michael Bardo, who was convicted in the 1992 killing of his 3-year-old niece and sentenced to death.
It wasn't an easy thing to ask 12 men and women to sentence someone to death. There's a human element to it even as a prosecutor, Olszewski said.
There are a million reasons to get rid of (the death penalty) and none that I can think of to keep it, said Kathleen Lucas, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said. If killing someone is wrong, then why are we doing it in the name of the state? (The death penalty) is the most calculated … most premeditated … murder there is.
Lucas said there are several myths about the death penalty, including:
• It costs less to execute a person rather than imprison them for the rest of their lives. In reality, it costs about three times more (to execute a person), Lucas said.
• Bringing closure to the victim's family is another myth, Lucas said, when in actuality, the family goes through something that can never bring them closure or heal their pain.
• The danger of executing an innocent person, Lucas said, as well as religious, ethical and moral reasons not to have a death penalty. She noted that most people on death row often die in prison of other causes before they are actually executed.
Times Leader staff writer Sheena Delazio contributed to this report.